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Wellesley’s stand for freedom should register across academia

More than ever before, international engagement has become a prominent feature of the higher education landscape. From elaborate “junior year abroad” programs to the building of overseas satellite campuses, American universities are expanding to the rest of the world — and bringing the world closer to home.

At their best, such partnerships can be valuable for scholars, students, and societies alike, leading to broader social horizons and deeper knowledge of other cultures.

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But what happens when those exchanges are with institutions that have no tradition of academic freedom? What are the rules of engagement for American schools whose overseas programs answer to governments that suppress free inquiry or crack down on peaceful criticism? How can universities uphold the American commitment to liberty of conscience, equality, and the rule of law while cooperating with foreign authorities that sometimes restrict them?

These are not theoretical concerns, and Wellesley College, to its credit, is taking them seriously in its challenge to its partner university in China. Wellesley’s actions could be a model for principled, but also thoughtful, engagement with partner universities in countries that lack academic freedom.

Earlier this year, Wellesley entered into a partnership with China’s influential Peking University, setting up student and faculty exchanges with the goal of “educating women for global leadership.” Just a few weeks later, Wellesley faculty members learned that their new academic partner — which of course is under the aegis of China’s ruling Communist Party — might be about to expel Xia Yeliang, a member of the Peking University economics faculty and a prodemocracy activist. Several Wellesley professors, citing the college’s collaboration with Peking University, argued that they had a moral obligation to try to help Xia.

This month more than 130 Wellesley professors, in a letter to top Peking administrators, strongly protested the threat to Xia’s academic freedom. The letter makes clear that if Xia is fired, the signers — over one-third of the entire Wellesley faculty — will urge that the new partnership be ended. Wellesley’s president, H. Kim Bottomly, has stressed the benefits of maintaining the partnership — and they are, indeed, significant — but also vowed to support the will of the faculty. According to Wellesley sociologist Thomas Cushman, this marks the first time that any US college faculty has “taken the fight” to a Chinese partner institution.

Hopefully, Wellesley’s protest will provoke the Peking University authorities to reconsider any plans to expel Xia, and thereby allow the partnership to go forward. It could be an important facet of the education of students at both institutions, thereby strengthening global understanding. But part of that understanding is the vital importance of academic freedom. Faculty at other US colleges should follow their example. Foreign universities seeking the prestige of partnerships with American institutions must be made to understand how seriously Western tradition deems academic freedom — and how far professors will go to defend it.

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